SACRAMENTO -- Unimaginable.
That's the word used, repeatedly, by Sacramento Kings fan Sukh Sandhu, a Sacramento State alum who forked over the cash required to buy tickets for himself, his wife, Pavan, and his infant son, Veer, to vividly experience the team's first playoff game in 17 years. As they celebrated the team's thrilling 126-123 win -- its first postseason victory since 2006 -- over the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Sandhu hoisted his son in the air like Simba from "The Lion King," allowing the next generation to witness in full the unfolding a new era of Sacramento Kings basketball.
"The fact that my son can say he grew up watching the first Kings playoff game will mean more than he can ever imagine," Sandhu told CBS Sports. "I'll show him these pictures. We're extremely lucky."
A team's history and success can quickly be ascertained by the jerseys its fans wear. Go to a Laker game, and you'll see plenty of LeBron, probably some throwback Kobe -- champions. Chase Center, and Oracle Arena before it, were consistently jam-packed with No. 30 jerseys for their Finals MVP and four-time champ Steph Curry.
For the Kings, however, the blueprint isn't as clear. After all, they've never won a title in Sacramento.
Looking around a rabid Golden 1 Center before Saturday night's playoff opener, you could spot the jerseys of more than two dozen different players. Current fan fave De'Aaron Fox won the plurality, but the names on the jerseys ran the full gamut. Of course there were franchise legends like Mitch Richmond, Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby, but there were also jerseys of players who represented organizational dead ends -- head-scratchers that made you think, "Oh yeah, he did played for the Kings ... didn't he?"
Bobby Hurley. Caron Butler. Kosta Koufos. Skal Labissiere. The basketball player formerly known as Ron Artest.
Those jerseys reveal so much about this Sacramento fan base -- not only that they are proud enough to wear those jerseys to a home playoff game in 2023, but also that they suffered through so many glimmers of hope that resulted in inevitable disappointment.
For 17 years, Kings fans have been opening a series of unmarked doors looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, only to have them slammed in their faces. That disappointment -- nearly two decades of anguish and torment -- came to a tangible, audible, glorious end when Curry's one-legged 3-pointer caromed off the rim to cement the Kings' Game 1 victory.
The cowbells rang. The weight was lifted. The beam was lit.
Before the game even started, the son of Kings head coach Mike Brown, Elijah, texted his father saying, "the energy in the arena is unbelievable." Sacramento forward Trey Lyles told Fox it was "the loudest arena I've ever played in." The fans took those 17 years and channeled them into a palpable energy that placed it on par with any arena in the sports kingdom.
"We obviously want to win for ourselves and for each other and for everybody in this organization," said Fox, who scored a game-high 38 points in the win. "But doing this for the fans, just knowing the way that they support this team through thick and thin -- like really thin -- I think it's just a testament to the way they are. It was definitely a great atmosphere tonight."
The arena was so loud, you could barely hear the whistles that the Kings fans often felt weren't going their way. Members of the media had to stand on their tip-toes to see over a crowd that rose with every hoisted 3-pointer or burgeoning fast break. When the final buzzer sounded, elation and jubilant chants of "LIGHT ... THE ... BEAM!" enveloped every fiber of Sacramento's being. They waited for this -- yearned for it -- and they savored every moment.
The fans weren't the only ones present for the triumph, as former Kings lined the sidelines and luxury boxes. Bobby Jackson, Vlade Divac and Jason "White Chocolate" Williams were introduced to raucous cheers during a timeout. Former Kings Jason Thompson and Stephen Jackson were in attendance. Whether their teams of the past won or not, the Sacramento alumni have been embraced by not only the fans, but also the current players.
"Just seeing seeing Bobby, seeing Vlade, seeing J-Will on the baseline tonight, that was a big," said Harrison Barnes, who joined the Kings midway through the 2018 season. "I talk to them a lot. They were influential in just helping me understand the culture of Sacramento and what the fans have meant. I think to come up short year after year, and then finally have that moment where you're able to run out and obviously play and get a win here tonight. It was big."
In case you haven't gathered yet, Saturday's win was about so much more than Xs and Os. But the Kings executed on the floor, withstood numerous barrages from the Warriors -- just like those which have crushed countless teams over the past decade -- and leaned on Fox, the likely winner of this year's inaugural Clutch Player of the Year, to guide them home.
They flashed a box-and-one at Curry that Brown said the team intentionally chose not to practice very much.
"We don't really know what we're doing," he said, only half-joking. "That may confuse the other team."
The bench carried them at times, getting 32 points from a relentless Malik Monk and four timely 3-pointers from Lyles. Mostly, the team adhered to the two simple principles that Brown said he will continue to reiterate throughout the series: Physicality and pace.
The euphoria of Saturday night will be short-lived -- such is the fleeting nature of professional sports. Game 2 tips off on Monday night, as celebration gradually shifts to reflection and adjustment.
Sacramento has earned its seat at the table. Now the challenge is keeping it.
"Both teams, we know each other extremely well through the regular season. We know who the main characters are," Barnes said. "I think for us, it's just a matter of who's gonna do the little details. I think what's going to determine, ultimately, each of these games is the rebounds, the turnovers, the 50-50 possessions. Who's going to have a greater desire to come up with those?"
No matter how the series turns out, however, the Kings, their fans and the city of Sacramento will always have this night. Whether the next playoff series starts in seven days or another 17 years, the reciprocal nourishment flowing between the Kings and their loyal fanbase is undeniable.
"I applaud our fans," Brown said. "We're gonna need them. We're gonna need them to continue to be there for us, night in, night out. Because it's not easy. It's a long journey, and we've just got to keep taking it one step at a time, and we need everyone behind us in Sacramento, which I feel we definitely have."